Herbie Hancock Is Still Breaking Rules07/29/2019
If jazz for you means tradition and inheritance, maybe Herbie Hancock can change your mind. At the very least, he’d like to make you think twice about what “tradition” means. The pianist and composer has never been interested in upholding any stylistic conventions — “I like to break things,” he said when we spoke last week — but he does insist on a few trusty ideals. For him, jazz will always mean cross-pollination, adventurism and faith in what’s ahead.
After double-majoring in music and engineering at Grinnell College, Mr. Hancock joined Miles Davis’s band in 1963, close on the heels of his own debut album. Immediately, his piano playing represented some big new possibilities, connecting the shaded harmonies of Romanticism and the earth tones of the blues. By decade’s end, venturing into jazz-rock fusion, Mr. Hancock had figured out how to make synths and electric keyboards sound splintered and percussive. On albums like “Head Hunters,” “Thrust” and “Mr. Hands,” he put a kick of futurism into funk. A few years later, he turned right back around, returning to an acoustic format years before jazz’s neoconservative moment dawned.
More recently, Mr. Hancock’s fusion recordings from the 1970s and ’80s have become a touchstone for younger musicians, and he has welcomed these new acolytes into his own creative process. The crossover stars Terrace Martin and Thundercat will join Mr. Hancock onstage this Thursday, when he plays the Beacon Theater in New York.
Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, Mr. Hancock reflected on five decades at the vanguard of American music, and dangled promises of a new record — the product of that intergenerational exchange — which he said could begin trickling online, track by track, in the next few weeks. This would be a welcome development from Mr. Hancock, 79, who hasn’t released an album in nearly a decade, and has not made one devoted to original music in twice as long.
Not that he’s been idle. As a Unesco global ambassador and the chairman of the recently renamed Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz, he stays busy advocating the continued relevance of jazz across the globe.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
It seems like your influence — your shadow — is everywhere these days, particularly among young jazz and electronic musicians. I wonder if you feel gratified by that, and if you think it casts your work in a fresh light?
The truth is, I’ve been sticking my nose into what they’re doing. And that shadow that you’re talking about, that’s me: I’ve been going and hanging out with the younger musicians, like Robert Glasper. Sitting in. Terrace Martin has turned me on to a lot of the young people on that scene. I’m examining their approaches to music, and their use of social media, and how they record. Then we begin to exchange ideas. So it’s not just what I’ve done in the past, but the fact that I’m physically here now and accessible.
I like to break rules. I like to break convention. I’m interested in virtual reality now, even though I’m not a gamer. I don’t know when I’m going to get in that door, but I’m looking into it. I have an Oculus Rift, and I just bought a Valve Index.
How has working with younger musicians helped expand your palette?
As far as the new record I’m working on, I wanted to explore what young musicians are doing these days. I started off hanging out with Flying Lotus. Through him, I met Thundercat. Flying Lotus sent me a text: “Listen to Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly.’ It’s an important record.” I didn’t know who Kendrick Lamar was. And the first time I listened to it, the first thing I heard were words that I don’t like to hear on records. And this was my mistake: I assumed it was going to be what rap had been before. I heard that and it turned me off. Then I started to think. I said, wait a minute. Flying Lotus says it’s an important record. So if I’m going to hear this record, I have to remove that barrier that I’ve put up.
For years I’ve been against people prejudging stuff without paying attention to what is actually there. So I said, don’t tell me I’m falling into the same trap I’ve been fighting against, that happened to me when I did “Head Hunters”! I listened to it again, and the record blew my [expletive] mind. [Laughs] I mean, this guy’s such a genius.
You have always ventured in and out of stylistic idioms, but nowadays it seems like nobody wants to be stuck inside a single genre. I wonder if you think the era of stylistic labels has come and gone.
Genres made it easy to put things in categories so that they could be promoted. One person’s face could be recognized for one category, and another person’s face could be recognized for another category. It was just to make some sense of it all. But when it starts to interfere with cross-collaboration, and the fact that that too can be musical, then it becomes a problem. I can only say that the word “jazz” today is much broader than it has been in the past.
You know, the most important thing is the spirit of jazz — which is about freedom, about improvisation, about courage. I mean the courage to play something that you haven’t played before, to create something on the spot. And it’s also about sharing, because onstage we don’t compete with each other. Each of us expresses ourselves from our own being, and no two people are alike, so the idea of being judgmental is not on the table.
As a Unesco good will ambassador, you were instrumental in the creation of International Jazz Day. Why was it important for you to put jazz in a global context?
Well, jazz actually has been functioning as an international music for a number of years. Jazz musicians are in pretty much every country on the planet. So my first idea was to introduce the idea of Unesco making an International Jazz Day, which is an offshoot of what I’ve wanted to propose to Unesco: that jazz become officially an international music, and not just an American music. That it belongs to the world now, not just to the United States.
What are Americans? We’re immigrants. We all come from every corner of the planet. So it’s like giving this music that developed here back to the rest of the world, because we also come from the rest of the world. Yes, the beginnings of the music started from the African-American experience, but it permeated all of America and developed through this melting pot. Frankly, we need more events and more things that point out the importance of bringing people from all over the planet together. To laugh together, to cry together, to work together, to help each other.
At the Beacon Theater in Manhattan on Thursday; msg.com/beacon-theatre.
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